Updated: Apr 4, 2019
"And when foreigners come to this city all they talk about is the heat, dust, and oil; why do they not love our city?" - "Because they are foreigners" - Ali & Nino
To the Caspian Sea
The Black Sea to the Caspian in one day. One long day. First leg - train from the resort town of Batumi with its semi-tropical coastline and sprouting hotel complexes, bonatical gardens and thunderstorms to Tbilisi, seven hours of comparative bliss on a shiny new electric train from the shiny new train station, a world of difference from the dreaded marshrutka. Plenty of legroom, space and time to relax. Two khachapuri breads and a bottle of pop, Kapuscinski to keep me company: 'Travels With Heredotus'. Blissful. I'm off to Baku, capital of oil-rich neighbour of Georgia to the east, Azerbaijan. I have a job teaching English for one month. My flight from Tbilisi could not have been at a worse time. The hours between waking and sleeping, upsetting the body clock, keeping you awake, the time when night ends and day begins. Hours of waiting around. Finally, we take off - we're up in the clouds. A little double-propellor job which hardly inspires confidence, a flying sardine tin. Welcome to Azeri Airlines. I don't care much by this time though and just want to get there. We're in the air for only one hour and twenty minutes. A train journey would have taken 14 hours. The most uninspiring in-flight meal ever: a chicken and cheese roll wrapped in cellophane, served with a plastic cup of warm cherry juice. I hope it's not a sign of things to come. Dawn arrives as we begin our descent over Baku. It comes as a shock after Georgia, so close but so different. There, it is green, luscious, abundant. Here, I look down and it is semi-desert, shades of browns, beiges and greys, interspersed with alarmingly-coloured lakes; one is orange, another a kind of murky dark brown. Large patches of black dot the ground everywhere: oil, seeping up through the soil and polluting everything. Welcome to Baku - a post-industrial wasteland. Mad Max and its bleak landscapes come to mind. We descend over the Caspian in order to turn around for our landing. and over the wide, crescent-shaped bay that Baku inhabits. Oil fields everywhere. One set of rigs, linked by roads, almost a town. In fact, there is a real off-shore town, two-hours' helicopter flight from here, in the middle of the Caspian. Dubbed in Azeri 'Neft Daslari' ('Oily Rocks'). Built in 1949, it is in fact the world's only off-shore 'town' - it's constructed on stilts out in the Caspian, with some 210km of roads, a cinema, a bakery, even a park. High Soviet tenement blocks accommodate the rotating population of 2000 workers. An intriguing tourist attraction - but unfortunately out of bounds unless you have an official invitation - or work there.
Baku - Mushrooming Capital
Coming in to land, I look down at the sea - sparkling grey, with mottled patches of black everywhere, lurking just beneath the surface. Through customs quite quick, visa on arrival - a rather steep $100 (thankfully it's paid for). Taxi to my digs. Buildings going up everywhere, a sense of a city being invested in. Infrastructure seemingly better than Georgia's; handsome facades everywhere, buildings and roads on first glance good quality. My apartment is huge and fairly central. I share with Eve, another English teacher. 100m2, new build, wooden floors and fittings, double glazing, air-con. Can't complain - much nicer than my Krakow flat.
You pay for it here though - $600 gets you a room for a month here. No bed has ever looked so welcoming. It is 9.30am. Baku is going through an unprecedented building boom. The town is sprouting new apartment and office blocks like mushrooms; it seems hard to believe that so much space is needed. Xatai, ('Hataye') our neighbourhood, is just acres of empty shells, waiting to be filled. "A lot of these buildings are built from laundered money", I am later told.. I have rarely seen a city in such a state of flux. Cranes and building machinery dominate the skyline, and I search for shade as I stroll into town from my residential neighbourhood. The city is not built for pedestrians - sidewalks are narrow and often non-existent, and cars take little notice of you when you're crossing the road. The heat beats down from the sun - a dry heat, much more reminiscent of the middle east than in Georgia. Not much shade. I walk past the docks then down to the promenade, to the wide sweep of Baku Bay.
More construction work, several huge skeletons dominate the skyline, along with a host of other shiny new glass-fronted malls, office blocks, apartments and hotels. Families walk along the front with its neatly trimmed grass verges, manicured plants and fountains. All very tidy, spruce. I go to the old town, dominated by the striking 19th Century military watch-tower, dubbed Maiden Tower. It looks fairly unprepossessing, quite an oddly-shaped, blunt stone tower, but it is said to date back as far as 500 BC, and has many myths attached to it. The most bizarre of these is that an old khan fell in love with his daughter and asked for her hand in marriage; stalling, she asked that he build a tower for her to show his love, and when it was complete, she threw herself off the top to avoid the terrible fate of marrying her own father. I climbed the tower for a better view of my surrounds. From the top of it, you get a great view of 'Ishacishari', the old town.
This old, walled part of Baku is its heart, charmingly redolent of a bygone era, and an escape from the city's traffic and noise. It's the kernel in the nut of Baku, a town within a town. It's not exactly up there with the old walled cities of Damascus or Jerusalem, but it's atmospheric enough, and, in The Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a beautiful 15th Century complex, has at least one building which is on the UNESCO list.
It's all very pleasant. I go into the truncated Muhammad Mosque (11th Century) and feel for the first time that I am actually in a Muslim country. The Muezzin call is conspicuous by its absence in this city, and along with lax attitudes to things like consumption of alcohol here, one can get the impression that this is only nominally an Islamic country - an incorrect impression, although mosque-going is not as strictly observed here as in the Middle east. Women never wear veils and only occasionally do you see headscarves. Alcohol is drunk, though not in great quantities, and rarely by women. In other respects though, the country is deeply conservative, and is entrenched in family values. Women have to do as their parents or husbands say very often, and have not really got outright autonomy as women do in the west. A strange brew of eastern orthodoxy/islam with Soviet attitudes in this part of the world; in some ways the Soviet Union made people here (and Georgia) cling on to their culture (and religion) more strongly, while from the outside these values, along with churches (and here most of their mosques) were being destroyed.
I go in search of food. Lots of pricey restaurants. I choose one, a sushi place, and look at the menu - it's like being back in western Europe. Dishes 15-30 Manat (1 Manat = 1 Euro). I quickly leave. Most restaurants I go in are exhorbitant, and, it seems, the bars are too. I had read that restaurants are a mix of Persian/Turkish/Russian influences here, which has given the food quite an international flavour, though I notice Turkish restaurants dominate. Most of the bars are of the fake Irish, expat variety - the Maccy D's of bars. I generally avoid expat bars - they are the same the world over, full of drunk outsiders who don't have a clue where they are, but are usually earning too much. Boring, and often quite depressing. I meet a group of English-speaking guys and tag along with them, we find ourselves in a restaurant called Caravanserai, which, as its name suggests, is designed like a historic travellers' inn. Carved out of stone and on two levels. All open-air, decorated with Arabic designs and with live music. Azeri food. I notice that it's all very similar to Turkish food; kebab-based with some variations. Lots of lamb, beef, dolma, lentil soup, baklava. Azeris identify themselves culturally with the Turks, and their languages are almost identical; they look up to Turkey and align themsel